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Chas SMITH (b.1948)
Descent [18:05]
Endless Mardi Gras [20:50]
False Clarity [9:41]
Oja Fin (voice); Chas Smith (stainless steel sheet, jet plane/notch filters, Copper Box, steel guitar, Que Lastas, Jr. Blue, flutes, zither, Guitarzilla, Pez Eater)
rec. 2003-2005, TDS Studio, Encino, California
COLD BLUE MUSIC CB0023 [48:36]

 

Chas Smith has contributed to many film scores and rock albums, playing pedal steel guitar and organ; since the 1970s he has been designing and creating his own instruments - he has also worked as a professional welder and machinist. His metal constructions – many of which bear colourful names, as listed above – can be struck, bowed or otherwise manipulated in a variety of ways. In a sense he can be seen, I suppose, as a descendant of Harry Partch, part inventor, part composer with an individual vision.

Among his instruments are the ‘Copper Box’, which uses a number of aircraft parts, can be struck or bowed and has a ring time of 45 seconds; the ‘Pez Eater’ which “has 36 steel rods, captured at one end and tunable, mounted in front of guitar pickups that are adjustable up and down to look for ‘sweet spots’. It’s played with pencil erasers, rubber grommets, thin wires, bowed with Velcro and ribbons” and ‘Guitarzilla’ “a tripleneck guitar with a short scale 10 string, a long scale 10-string and 5 string bass neck. Each neck has pickups on both ends and all of the strings are coplanar so things like drill rods and such can extend across multiple necks and be woven in the strings (see ‘Simple Music for Complex Sounds’). In truth, it has to be said that individual instrumental sounds can scarcely be distinguished in the music on Descent.

The fascination with sonority is the dominant force in Smith’s music here; ‘Descent’ is made up of thick, multi-layered textures of sound, vaguely mechanical in implication, with the sounds of jet engines clearly heard at times; the music moves very slowly, the effect is a kind of industrial/technological sublime. Slowly the pitch of the labs of sound moves downwards (which is presumably part of what the title refers too). This is slow music which demands a good deal of patience and attention if one is to listen to it properly; there is a strange sense of sounds which are simultaneously delicate and weighty. For me the experience was initially relaxing and then rather unsettling. ‘Endless Mardi Gras’ opens with distant sounds of conversation and then – again – jet engines, which become dominant; this particular sequence I found rather tedious and overlong, though the spatial effects as the sounds recede and approach are often interesting. ‘False Clarity’ has some more obviously ‘beautiful’ textures, quiet and crystalline, the metal sources of some of the sounds more obvious, the shifts of pitch and tone again very slow. There is a voice to be heard too; it is probably the most immediately approachable of the three tracks (if only because it has affinities with certain kinds of ambient music). But ‘Descent’ seems to me the most interesting and individual work here and will, I suspect, be the most likely reason for my returning to the album later.

 

This is not music which will appeal to everyone, and, in truth, it isn’t music I expect to listen to with great frequency myself. But Smith deserves to be taken seriously, and his work articulates a particular experience of the world in interesting and idiosyncratic fashion. Personally I would like the opportunity to hear some of Smith’s instruments in isolation, as it were, not just as voices (mostly impossible to distinguish with any certainty) in these dense textures of sound. Perhaps Cold Blue will consider creating the kind of opportunity to hear and ‘play’ Smith’s instruments which exists, where Partch’s instruments are concerned - click here.

Glyn Pursglove

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